diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 23, 2017

Another General Election, another binary choice.


It's not supposed to work this way, and technically it doesn't, but the invariable outcome of any General Election is a win for either left or right.

Whoever you vote for, for as many years as you can remember, the centre never wins. The pendulum of national control simply swings from blue to red and back again, sometimes at glacial pace, and never ever stops in the middle.


Yes, I know 2010 was a bit different. Electoral arithmetic bequeathed us a coalition government, with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power, but the end result wasn't rule by the centre. Instead we got government by the right, tempered by centrist influence but delivering a Conservative agenda, as the Lib Dems subsequent electoral rout made clear. And yes, I know 1974 was rather odd too, but the Liberals didn't really get a look in, because they never properly do. Red rule or blue rule, that's all we ever get.

Many would argue that the UK's 'first past the post' system is excellent at delivering strong government. Any prevailing mood in the nation is amplified to award one side or the other a reasonable majority, and they can then get on and get things done. Other countries with other systems are sometimes hamstrung by indecision, whereas ours generally puts someone in control. But it never puts the centre in control, only left or right, time and time again.

I'm deeply intrigued by the way our political system flips from one side to the other despite, you'd think, most people's beliefs being somewhere in the middle. Our two main parties sit either side of the mainstream, drawing folk one way or the other, and generally constricting the centre. Any third party always gets squeezed, as the majority are drawn towards polarising arguments on one side or the other. And I wondered why this is.


Are there naturally two approaches to life - one collaborative, one individual - and most of us fall into one camp or the other? Do those on the extremes have stronger beliefs than those in the centre, hence political parties coalesce to either side? Is it easier to state a case for policies on the left or right, so any manifesto from the centre ground sounds wishy-washy. Or is it just that two choices keeps things nice and simple, and the electorate likes things nice and simple when making its decision?

It shouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility for the UK to have a strong centre party. A reasonable leader offering reasonable policies of reasonable stability, neither intent on creating socialist nirvana nor hellbent on privatising everything, might perform strongly. You'd think millions of people would appreciate voting for something average, because overall we are average, by definition. But the average position never dominates, never achieves critical mass, and the country ends up being run by either the Red Tribe or the Blue Tribe once again.

So what we always end up with, by default, is extreme government of one kind or the other. One side picks apart all the policies of the old lot and installs its own, then the other side gets in and does the reverse. And when one side wins several elections on the trot, as has generally been the case over the last 40 years, their successive terms of office entrench their position even deeper, dragging the country further and further from a national consensus. Wouldn't it be nicer to find some moderate long-term policies and stick with them?

Our political system seems set up to ensure that a substantial proportion of the population hates what the government is doing to the country. If the left were in power, millions would be complaining about tax rises and money being spent on undeserving causes. With the right in power, millions are aghast at the dismantling of public services and the rise of nationalism. A centre-based government would annoy both wings of the spectrum, but not to the extent that partisan government totally pisses off the other half.

This two-way choice exists in many other situations where public opinion is a continuum. The American political system is perfectly binary, one behemoth against the other, and damn the consequences. Today's French presidential vote isn't binary, but the final run-off in a fortnight's time will be. Referendums are the perfect binary construct, where the response "Perhaps we should consider this in a more nuanced way" isn't on the ballot paper. You're either with us or against us, so pick your side, and don't sit on the fence.

And yet other countries get by with centre-ist parties and coalitions, and think nothing of it. Then there's the EU itself, which can only function by taking everyone's opinions into account, and not by picking sides. But at a national level the UK's never been like that. We had the chance to opt for PR and threw it away, because we prefer to be ruled by one lot or the other, not a compromise.

If a forcefully charismatic middle of the road politician came along, perhaps things might change. But even now, when the current Labour leader is as unpopular as he is, note how public opinion still skips the middle ground and leaps to regroup on the right-hand side. Not even proportional representation could deliver us from the landslide we're about to face, as a foregone conclusion sweeps Theresa May back into Downing Street.


It seems inconceivable that left could beat right in the upcoming election. But not as inconceivable as the centre beating them both, either now or in the future. Why do we never end up in the middle?

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